Lorri Glover is the John Francis Bannon, S.J. Professor of History at St. Louis University. This interview is based on her forthcoming book Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries (Yale University Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Founders as Fathers?
LG: Many years ago, before the start of a session in my class on the American Revolution, two students were commiserating about their fathers’ high academic expectations. Our topic of the week was the Constitutional Convention, and we’d read some of James Madison’s notes from that convention. One student said to the other, “can you imagine being James Madison’s son?!” They then asked me if Madison had any children. I didn’t know, but promised to find out. The short answer was fascinating: only a single stepson, a ne’er-do-well of the first order who squandered every opportunity given him as well as tens of thousands of dollars on a gambling addiction before being thrown into debtor’s prison. The long answer is Founders as Fathers.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Founders as Fathers?
LG: To fully understand the creation of the American Republic we must explore the intimate, personal lives of the Founding Fathers. Family values and revolutionary politics were so indelibly linked in the eighteenth century that we can’t truly know the founders until we meet them as fathers.
JF: Why do we need to read Founders as Fathers?
LG: I hope the book helps readers understand how much family life mattered in the public careers of men like George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. Americans have always been keen to celebrate the founders’ political and military accomplishments. But too often in that understandable quest, we’ve etched these men in amber, cast them in marble, and, inadvertently, stripped away some of their humanity. In particular, we’ve missed the “fathers” part of the founding. The leaders of the American Revolution took up their radical politics while heading families, sometimes leaving their relatives behind to serve the patriot cause and sometimes rejecting political offices to stay home with their wives and children. Always they struggled to balance domestic obligations with the relentless call to public service. Their family values also underlay their entry into revolutionary politics, driving their understanding of virtue, sacrifice, and independence. And the Revolution they led remade family life no less than it reinvented political institutions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LG: I am a first-generation college graduate, and I went to the University of North Alabama so that I could someday get a “salary” job. Not surprisingly, I floundered as I bounced from marketing to education to pre-law before a great teacher and historian, Larry Nelson, inspired and saved me. Halfway through the first lecture in his class, I thought, “This is what I want to be.” And I’ve never changed my mind.
JF: What is your next project?
LG: Right now I’m working on a book about the ratification debates in Virginia in 1787-1788. Virginia was the largest and most important state in the country at that time, and everyone in America understood that Virginia needed to ratify the Constitution if the federal plan had any hope of success. But when it came to the Constitution, Virginians were also the most deeply divided people in the United States. Led by Patrick Henry, a great number of Virginians fought ratification, convinced that the Constitution betrayed the principles of the Revolution. James Madison led the supporters, who insisted the Constitution was the only chance to save the republic. The final vote was razor thin: 89-79. Six votes swung the other way would have changed the fate of our nation. The Virginia debates offer a powerful reminder of just how controversial and divisive the Constitution was at its creation.
JF: Thanks, Lorri